Govfall: Or, tell me again why federal courts are ruling on the validity of scientific theories?
posted at 1:42 pm on June 27, 2012 by J.E. Dyer
We in the US appear to be very close to becoming a theocracy. The religion in question is not Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, nor is it even environmentalism. It’s “government infallibilism,” or, as I like to call it, Govfall. The central tenet of this religion is that government is competent to decide or rule on anything – anything at all, regardless of evidence or lack of it, knowledge or paucity of it, or understanding or dearth of it.
The branch of the US government that represents the proper use of Govfall’s main religious tenet isn’t always the same one (which, frankly, ought to be a clue for believers). The judicial branch has been, as it were, on the throne of judgment for a number of decades, but Americans have also suffered a few presidents to seat themselves on it, like FDR and Obama. (Contemporary accounts of FDR’s arbitrary morning decisions on what relationship the dollar should have with gold are a sort of emblem of that political theocrat’s brand of Govfall.) Congress, which actually represents the people in their hamlets and villages, is rarely the infallible theocrat, but it has had its moments as well (and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi has certainly had a habit of speaking in a sort of goofy ex cathedra style).
The fundamental question is why we have come to accept this idea that government can and should rule on unproven theories about global cause and effect, and proceed to govern as if their propositions are “true.” Setting aside the questionable nature of some theories, why should government take on this role? Why should anyone? What is it we think we know or need to accomplish, that we have agreed to submit our futures to this concept of Govfall?
The matter at hand is the D.C. court of appeals ruling on the EPA’s authority to kill economic activity in the name of global warmism. The ruling describes the EPA’s opinion on global warming and greenhouse gases as “unambiguously correct” – which is a deeply silly formulation for characterizing any scientific theory, but would also have been considered, by our Founders and virtually all federal jurists up until the last 20-30 years, as comprehensively invalid language for any kind of judicial ruling. Judges aren’t competent to make decisions for the public on this matter. Their competence is in interpreting the law, not certifying scientific conclusions.
There is a difference, of course, between demonstrated harm and theoretical, yet-to-be-realized harm. When trash piles up and emits gases into a local area, that can be detected and documented (although rarely “unambiguously,” which is a prohibitively humongous claim in the skeptical realm of science). When toxic substances are detected in dead fish or decrepit urban trees – substances that actually kill forms of life, not just substances that advocacy groups don’t like – that too is often more certifiable than not, if not necessarily “unambiguous.” The tradition of empirical, non-religious-based law has some remedies for demonstrated harm: property owners can sue polluters when the pollution, whatever it is, damages or impinges on the full rightful use of their property; legislatures can make laws prohibiting (or managing, as with fees and clean-up requirements) certain defined types of polluting activity.
But when there is no demonstrated harm, but only unproven theories about very generalized, potential, worldwide harm in the future, it is a central question why government, through any of its branches, should be doing anything about it. This question gets at very basic things: what we expect of our life in the world, and what we expect of government.
Do we expect human life in the world to need constant supervision from a central authority in order to ward off cataclysm? Is our view of life pessimistic and fearful in this way? Do we believe that we are an incontinent, destructive species, as unaware as infants of the damage we do? Is there an unspecified cosmologic “judgment” hanging over us that we have to organize to avert? Are we effectively insentient organisms in a system with predetermined processes and outcomes, operating in a universe of deadly limits and shortages?
As for government, do we agree that its job is to enforce on everyone a particular attitude about these matters? We can’t agree among ourselves, from state to state or town to town, whether very present and material things like prostitution or abortion-on-demand should be legal, but we expect the central government to rule on an inchoate vision of what might happen in the future, however unlikely it may be, and then constrain everyone’s options – for just about everything – based on that ruling.
Why does there need to be an entity with the authority to do that? We didn’t start our life as a nation with the idea that government should have that authority. A state government, by its limited geographic nature, cannot effectively exercise such an authority, and our national idea is actually that the central government must not. Our national idea is limited government and liberty of thought, conscience, and economic endeavor.
If we cannot behave, in our economic lives, as if we think catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is a much-falsified theory waiting for some solid proof, then we are not effectively free to think it. We are constrained to behave as if we don’t. That situation differs only by the jackbooted thugs at the door from the lifestyle of people under communist rule, in which you’re free to “think” whatever you want, as long as you say and do only government-approved things, and never speak about or live by your own beliefs.
Sometime in the last century, the weight of sentiment among those who aspire to government jobs, in any role in any of the branches, tilted toward the religion of Govfall. It has become unendurable to them to think of the people out here doing things they disapprove of, and they have diligently enlarged the purview of government to encompass ruling on ideas and theories – always invoking the supposed disasters and wrongs that government power is either averting or redressing.
In the oft-invoked Galileo v. Pope analogy, today’s Govfall faithful, however much they may want to see themselves as Galileo, are actually “the Pope” (or, technically, the Roman Inquisition). The Govfall believers are the people insisting on a single, cosmological orthodoxy, in spite of the continued lack of evidence for it and the strong arguments against it. In the matter of global warmism, their orthodoxy is throwing into informative relief not only their religious attitude about man and the natural world, but the dangers of the religion of Govfall in general.
Just as the papacy could not be infallible on the matter of the earth’s and sun’s places in the solar system, so modern government cannot be infallible on whether the globe is headed for a man-made natural cataclysm. No human organization can be infallible on something like that. Being “the government” doesn’t confer special powers of insight or prophecy; it just hands a gun and a badge (or a black robe) to a bunch of ordinary people no smarter than the rest of us. That’s why our Founders wanted government to be limited and constitutionally restrained: because nothing good comes from expecting too much of the government, or giving it too much to do.
The end result for Galileo and the Pope was that Galileo’s theory became the accepted one, and the papacy eventually changed its policy on inquiring into, or taking sides on, scientific questions. The Catholic Church was undergoing the “Counter Reformation” throughout the precise period when Galileo lived and wrote, and ultimately, one of that reformation’s chief casualties was the idea of putting the imprimatur of the Holy Church on the material conclusions of politics or science. Galileo’s personal story had an impact on that, but the change in attitude came at least as much from the Protestant Reformation, the Church’s recognition of internal corruption, the successful revolt of England’s Henry VIII against Rome, and the political turmoil on the continent from the Protestant-Catholic rift.
I see an analogy to these events in the religions of Govfall and global warmism. Govfall, a cult of central, infallible authority, is the basic problem, and it is the thing that will have to change. Warmism may well be a focused, singular precipitating factor – one that will be especially memorable in the centuries to come – but there are a number of others that highlight the sclerosis and unsustainability of Govfall. What history tells us is that a political religion like Govfall is unsustainable. In one way or another, the people, over time, decide against it.
The American people are waking up to the absurdity of a federal appeals court proclaiming that warmist theory is “unambiguously correct.” The Govfall religion sits wrong with us, and the evidence of its pervasiveness is piling up. In the end, it will not be Govfall that triumphs. The ruling public idea of government will change, in favor of the wisdom of our Founders – and Govfall will fall.